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Mound Bottom State Archaeological Area

Yesterday, I visited Mound Bottom State Archaeological Area for the first time. The state acquired this Native American site in the early 1970s, and it’s now part of Harpeth River State Park. (1) The archaeological area, about 30 minutes west of Nashville, is not open to the public so if you want to see it you have to join a tour offered by the park or the Tennessee Division of Archaeology. (2) Ranger Lisa Housholder hosted yesterday’s tour, and our group learned so much from her.

A brown sign saying "Harpeth River State Park - Mound Bottom" stands in front of a green field with a green mound in the middle surrounded by trees under a bright blue sky with white puffy clouds
Mound Bottom State Archaeological Area

While there were once thought to be 14 mounds, it’s now believed there are 12 mounds at this site built by Native Americans from the Mississippian era (A.D. 1000 - 1450.) (3) Archaeological evidence indicates that the Mound Bottom site was used before A.D. 976 when the biggest mound, Mound A, was first expanded until about A.D. 1350. (4) If you’re familiar with Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park in West Tennessee, experts believe those mounds were built from A.D. 100 to A.D. 350. (5) (I’d consider all of these dates as general guidelines as I’ve seen a bit of contradiction between sources.) (6)

A green mound is in the middle of a green grass field surrounded by bluffs with trees
Mound A

Mound Bottom was a gathering place, and the flat mounds supported structures for use by those at the top of society. (7) Ranger Housholder told us about the wattle and daub houses that would have once stood at the site. These buildings are made by packing mud around woven wooden pieces or river cane to form walls. (8)

She also explained the advantages of the site’s location. The Harpeth River borders three sides of the area, and this helped to protect it. Residents could easily see anyone approaching by water and could monitor the one overland entrypoint. Residents could use the river for travel, and it facilitated trade. The Harpeth was their water source and also attracted wildlife which residents could hunt for food. (9)

In the early 1900s, this area was used for farming. Corn and watermelons were grown on Mound A. (10) Now some of the mounds surrounding Mound A are rounded instead of flat perhaps due to plowing. (11)

We got to hike to the top of Mound A using the path that an earlier farmer cut so he could get his farm equipment on top of the mound. (12) It’s thought that Native Americans used a wooden staircase on the east side of the mound to reach the top. (13) We also got to visit another smaller mound, and we saw some sinkholes which Ranger Housholder said began appearing after the 2010 flood. (14)

Longer grass-like plant is in the foreground and a grass field stretches beyond with two smaller mounds. A wooded bluff is in the background.
View of smaller mounds from the top of Mound A

Next, Ranger Housholder showed us another part of the park: Mace Bluff Recreational Area near the Mound Bottom site. (15) Anyone willing to take on the steep hike here will get to see a petroglyph also from the Mississippian period. (16) This etching in the rock shows a mace, an object held by those in authority. (17) Hikers on this trail will be treated to a great view of Mound Bottom across the river. (18)

An almost imperceptible gap in a wall of green trees and shrubs
The trailhead is almost completely hidden.

The trailhead is off Cedar Hill Road and is extremely hard to spot. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see the park’s orange signs.

Two small orange signs nailed on a tree are almost covered by vines in the woods

There will be more signs further up the trail as well. (19) There is no parking lot here - just a wide spot next to the road. Make sure your car isn’t blocking the road or the neighbor’s driveway.

If you’d like to tour Mound Bottom, Harpeth River State Park is hosting tours on October 8, 14, and 22. They are also hosting an early hike on October 21 so visitors can sit on top of Mound A and watch the sun rise. Sign up for any of these tours for a cool experience!

  1. Ranger Lisa Housholder tour

  2. Ranger Lisa Housholder tour

  3. Ranger Lisa Housholder tour

  4. Ranger Lisa Housholder tour

October 2, 2023


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